Bienvenue: France's expats get their own radio station

A new name on the airwaves targets London's 400,000 French-speakers
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The Independent Online

Deep in La Vallée des Grenouilles, the idea of a new local radio station is causing much excitement. But this is no remote gorge in La France profonde. La Vallée des Grenouilles – the Valley of the Frogs – is Le Monde's nickname for South Kensington, epicentre of Britain's Francophone population. And the "local" radio station is French Radio London, which launches on Wednesday.

The station will be aimed predominantly at the estimated 400,000 French people living in the capital, which is known as France's "fifth city". It will offer press reviews of British and French newspapers, news from London and from correspondents in Paris, and a "heavy dose of nostalgic music" to give listeners a "sense of being home". There is a self-imposed French music quota of 80 per cent.

Pascal Grierson, CEO of French Radio London, hopes to have 50,000 listeners by the end of year one, increasing to 110,000-120,000 listeners by year three – audience projections that he believes are "extremely conservative".

He is convinced there is a "hefty appetite" for the station among Francophones, who he expects to make up the majority of listeners, and the numerous Francophiles living in London.

He said London appeals to the French because it is open-minded and less cliquey than "codified" Paris. "You're not judged on what you wear, it's just a much more relaxed atmosphere," he said. "The French are very good at taking the piss out of others, but not so good at doing so to themselves, and by hanging out with British people they learn a lot about self-deprecation, which can be an endearing quality."

Patricia Connell, 49, owner of the website, France in London, moved to London at 20, married an Englishman and brought up her children in the capital. She agrees there is a sense of freedom in London that you cannot find in France, where, she says, "you are judged by how skinny you are, what you wear, what you look like, the university you went to and the area in which you live."

She said: "Once you become a Londoner it's difficult to go back. Londoners are a very different breed: more open, more friendly, less judgemental. There is a real buzz here you often don't find in Paris, it really attracts younger people who end up staying."

Edouard Braine, consul general at the French embassy in London, said the UK is considered by many of his compatriots as "the best gateway towards the global world, just across the Channel," leading to a growing number of French people living in London.

The French community in South Kensington is centred on the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle, and as the French community has been growing, so has the number of students, from under 3,000 in 2000 to 3,750 last year. In 2012, the Collège Français Bilingue North London, in Kentish Town, will open offering 750 places to help cope with demand.

The high street is scattered with boulangeries and patisseries, a branch of Parisian florist Monceau Fleurs and French bookshops, complete with the traditional squared Clairefontaine notebooks used by French students in class.

Mrs Connell, who lives in Notting Hill, said the area is a "little Paris" but "brings in all the best of Britishness to the area." But she said it was inevitable that families in the area often socialise together. "Mothers meet French mothers through having kids in the lycée," she said. "But I also know many families who are fully integrated." According to the French embassy, there are 120,000 French people registered in the UK – 110,000 in London and 10,000 in Edinburgh. The vast majority of people, estimated to be three quarters, do not register and it is believed that some 400,000 mainly young people are living across the capital.

For those happiest creating a Cockney-tinted Paris, websites such as Chanteroy online and French Click sell such gastronomic comforts such Camembert, saucisson sec and Béarnaise sauce. And just as Anglophones can find English-language services in Paris, the equivalent is available in London, from French vets who will talk to sick pets in their native tongue, to a French dentist who travels in from Paris for a few days each month to treat Francophones in the British capital, advertising through the magazine Ici Londres.

Alain Gales, 45, who moved to London from Clermont-Ferrand in the Massif Central in 1987 and is a presenter on French Radio London, believes it's a mistake to move to London and "recreate a French experience in England".

"It's mostly young people who cross the Channel and there's a certain boredom with where you grew up," he said. "I was like a boy in a toy shop, there was a gig every night, I could improve my English and I started working for French magazines. London is changing all the time, and it's easy to feel you're at the centre of what's happening."